Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman

Simon Winchester, if he'd lived 150 years ago, would certainly have been a minor character in his charming history The Professor and the Madman: not because he'd have been either of the titular characters, but because he'd have participated eagerly in the project that linked these two men, W.C. Minor and James Murray. He doesn't say as much, but it's clear from every page of this work, subtitled A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, that he'd have been right in there with the hundreds of amateur lexicographers who collected all those illustrative quotations that make the OED such an inconceivably useful reference.

In other words, Winchester is a writer, not an academic, and more power to him. He's a terrific writer, and his scholarship is very good (I hear, though I'm no expert on the OED or Victorian England), so he follows in the same tradition that allowed the OED to come into existence.

The story:

The young, sensitive, Ceylon-born American doctor W.C. Minor begins to lose his mind while a surgeon in US Civil War. Booted out of the army, moves to London. His mind continues to go -- he believes he's abducted nightly and forced to perform lewd acts with lewd women, and worse, often by men who live under the floorboards in his room. One night in 1872 he runs from his room after an abductor seen in his room (who his landlady said couldn't have accessed the house) and shoots a passerby. Not guilty by reason of insanity, confined to a British asylum until 1910, when he's shipped to America for continued hospitalization until his death in 1920, after 48 years of confinement.

Scottish quasi-savant and autodidact James Murray wanders happily through Elysian fields of scholarship but is eventually tapped, in 1878, to be the first editor of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary (which a committee of the Philological Association had been trying to bring to life since 1857, after a suggestion by Richard Chernevix Trench). Murray sends into the world a request to all readers that they help find illustrative quotations from all periods of the language, showing how a word has evolved.

The OED takes vastly longer to complete than anyone expected, and turns out to be vastly larger than expected as well: two years to complete became forty-four; a hundred thousand slips submitted by readers became six million; 414,825 words defined, with 1,827,306 illustrative quotations, printed by hand with metal type totalling 178 miles in length.

Minor, in Broadmoor Asylum, becomes perhaps the greatest unpaid friend of the OED, submitting many thousands of citations from his growing and impressive private library (the neighbouring cell at Broadmoor), always for the volume just in press at the time.

Through the book runs the narrative of Dr. Minor's gradual and half-century-long descent into what Winchester tentatively diagnoses as paranoid schizophrenia. The ... crowning moment is likely his cutting off his own penis, in 1902, after successfully taking adequate precautions against infection and inordinate blood loss, but it is all through a sad and engaging tale of a man who lost himself. On the other hand, the book isn't just about Minor; it's also a more or less gripping yarn about lexicography, about the greatest dictionary-making effort in the planet's history.

It needs to be said, too, that Winchester dedicates the book to George Merrett, the man killed by Minor. Merrett was a poor labouring man, with a wife and several small children; Londoners contributed significantly to a charity for them, Minor's stepmother gave each of the children a hefty payment on reaching majority, and Minor himself apologized to Eliza Merrett, the man's wife. For some months, indeed, she visited him regularly at the asylum, bringing packages from the London booksellers who kept him supplied.

God bless us, every one.


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